Oklahoma football: 35 years ago, another QB named Thompson won at Nebraska


Thirty-five years ago, a redshirt-freshman quarterback with the last name of Thompson took the field at Nebraska Memorial Stadium to lead his team into battle.

Charles Thompson, father of Casey Thompson, the current Nebraska quarterback, was the starting quarterback for Oklahoma, having replaced injured starter Jamelle Holieway, who had torn his ACL a couple of weeks before the Sooners’ annual rivalry game with Nebraska.

It was 1987, and the November matchup between No. 2 Oklahoma and No. 1 Nebraska served as a reprise of the historical game between these same two teams 16 years earlier, popularly billed as the “Game of the Century.” The 1987 game was being respectfully referred to a “Game of the Century II.” As in 1971, both teams came into the game undefeated with perfect 10-0 records.

Barry Switzer had recruited Thompson as part of OU’s 1986 recruiting class. Because of the injury to Holieway, Thompson was elevated to the starter’s role, and in the true spirit of next man up, the talented and athletic Thompson delivered.

The Sooners had been the top-ranked team all season up to that point, but the week of the regular-season finale with Nebraska, the AP voters jumped the Cornhuskers over Oklahoma. The perception at the time was that despite OU’s undefeated record, Nebraska had played a tougher schedule and was more deserving of the top spot.

Thompson was making just his second start at quarterback and leading the vaunted Wishbone offense of the Sooners, which averaged 429 yards a game. Thompson was actually faster than Holieway, but Holieway had a 27-1 record as the OU starting quarterback, so Thompson was stepping into some pretty big shoes. Although, even in a backup role, Thompson had rushed for over 100 yards three different times that season.

Thompson had won his first game as the starter the week before, leading OU to a 17-13 victory over Missouri. But Nebraska was a much different animal. The Cornhuskers had beaten their previous five opponents by the average score of 45-3.

Nebraska led the nation in total offense, entering the Oklahoma game averaging 524 yards per game. Contrasting that, however, Oklahoma, under defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs, was the nation leader defensively in total yards allowed and passing yards and was permitting opponents just 7.5 points a game.

Game of the Century II

Thompson led the Sooners down the field on their opening possession in front of a sellout (77,000) Nebraska home crowd, the 156th consecutive sellout at Memorial Stadium, but OU lost the ball inside the 10-yard line on a fumble. Nebraska took over deep in its own territory but was unable to move the ball on its opening drive, and the two teams traded punts trying to gain field position.

Late in the opening quarter, Nebraska put together an 84-yard drive capped off by a 25-yard touchdown run by Keith Jones. The Sooner defense shut the door on the Huskers the remainder of the half, not allowing as much as a first down, but Nebraska took a 7-0 lead to the locker room at halftime.

Oklahoma lost two fumbles and started four of their six first-half possessions inside their 26-yard line, but Switzer remained optimistic at the break, informing the Sooner players:

"“Men, we got them right where we want them. And they know it, too.”"

Switzer’s halftime speech must have struck a chord because Oklahoma got the offense on tract early in the third quarter CB Rickey Dixon intercepted a tipped Steve Taylor pass and returned it 24 yards to the Nebraska 13-yard line. Two plays later, OU’s Thompson executed the Wishbone to perfection, faking a handoff to the fullback up the middle and keeping the ball along the right side before pitching the ball to trailing halfback Anthony Stafford, who took it the final 13 yards, leaping over a Nebraska defender and into the end zone for a touchdown. R.D. Lashar added the extra point, and the game was tied at seven all.

Later in the third quarter, Oklahoma unleashed the Wishbone again. This time it was Patrick Collins’ time for glory. With the ball on the OU 35-yard line, Collins turned the corner on the triple option and outraced defenders 65 yards for the go-ahead score, putting the Sooners up 14-7.

Oklahoma added another field goal by Lashar in the fourth quarter to close out the scoring and give the Sooners a 17-7 victory and their fourth consecutive win over the Huskers.

Ther final score wasn’t really indicative of how one-sided this game was. The Sooners generated 444 yards of total offense, 419 of that total coming on the ground. Oklahoma lost three fumbles deep in Nebraska territory and Lashar missed two field goals. Otherwise, the victory margin would have been much greater.

Oklahoma went 9-3 in the 1988 season with Thompson at quarterback. He suffered a leg injury late in the season, however, and wasn’t able to play in the Florida Citrus Bowl, where the 10th-ranked Sooners lost to 13th-ranked Clemson 13-6. He was an All-Big Eight First-Team selection that season.

The Barry Switzer era comes to an end

1988 ended up being Switzer’s final season as Sooners’ head coach. The following year, Thompson was arrested and charged with dealing cocaine, a charge to which he later pleaded guilty. The OU quarterback was sentenced to two years in prison. He was released after 17 months.

This all came at a time when the Oklahoma football program was under heavy scrutiny. Following Thompson’s arrest, a 1989 Sports Illustrated cover featured the former OU quarterback in handcuffs and a prison jumpsuit along with accusations that the Switzer-led Sooner program was out of control. Switzer bowed to the pressure and scrutiny being placed on the program and resigned that offseason after 16 seasons and OU head coach.

On Saturday, in that same stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska, everything will come full circle as Thompson’s son, Casey, will quarterback the Cornhuskers and lead them into battle against the Sooners.

The elder Thompson’s oldest son, Kendal, also played quarterback at Oklahoma, but transferred to the University of Utah after his sophomore season in 2013.

Oklahoma is very familiar with Casey. The Sooners faced him a year ago in the wild turnaround game with Texas. The young Thonpson threw for 388 yards and five touchdowns, but OU won the game 55-48, coming back from a 21-point first-quarter deficit. He transferred to Nebraska in the offseason, bypassing his father’s alma mater, which had made a serious effort to get him to come to Norman.

Today he will get the opportunity to do what his father did 35 years ago on the same field, but from the other side, and also avenge last season’s devastating loss to these same Sooners.